By Lara Koerner Yeo
On Friday, 6 March 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) released an unprecedented report. The report finds Canada in violation of articles 2, 3, 5, 14, and 15 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW Committee states that Canada has failed to take sufficient action to respect and protect the human rights of Aboriginal women, including their rights to life and personal security. Thus, by omission, Canada is in contravention of its obligations under the Convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, including the obligation to equally protect Aboriginal women under the law and provide effective remedies when they are subject to violence.
This is the first time an international human rights expert body has found Canada to be in contravention of international human rights norms. The report has been recognized as “extremely important” for Canada, and an “embarrassment for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.”
The report is the result of a summer 2013 inquiry undertaken by CEDAW members Niklas Bruun and Barbara Bailey into the situation of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Canada gave its permission for CEDAW Committee members to investigate in spring 2013, two years after the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) requested a CEDAW Committee inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.
For those who devote their professional lives to the advancement and domestic implementation of international human rights law, this kind of report is game changing. As Shelagh Day, a long-standing, outspoken advocate on the issue at the UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights writes, “for those of us who have been working on equality rights law for a long time, this decision includes analysis and findings that we have been seeking since section 15 of the Charter was introduced.” Day highlights three key ideas that the report brings to the fore: the interconnectedness and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights for the practical realization of women’s human rights; systemic discrimination, including the finding that State actors and institutional mechanisms can be engaged in, and thus perpetuating, such discrimination; and that the failure of a State to act can be the violation. Such explicit recognition of these things, and their role in connection to States’ violations of women’s rights, is norm-advancing.
National Aboriginal Organizations, including NWAC and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), have been quick to respond to the report release. Dawn Harvard of NWAC, in a joint NWAC-FAFIA press release, questions, “What more does Canada need?” The AFN affirms that the issue of violence is “a Canadian issue,” and the particular findings of the CEDAW report “cannot be ignored.” The Union of BC Indian Chiefs writes that Canada is in “DENIAL” about the efficacy and comprehensive nature of its current response to the situation of violence against Aboriginal women and girls; and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch responded to the release with statements critiquing Canada’s response to the report.
The responses by these Aboriginal and human rights organizations both highlight the great need for improved state response, and reflect the general sentiment of civil society in Canada today. Myriad public and private actors, policy and civil society stakeholders, call for a national inquiry into violence against Aboriginal women and girls. In a recent Angus Reid poll, almost three-quarters of Canadians supported a national inquiry.
While the CEDAW Committee report recommends that Canada launch a national inquiry, Canada rejected the three recommendations regarding a national inquiry and action plan. Canada disagrees that it has violated the Convention, and did not make any comment on how it would proactively change its current policy and programmatic response on the issue to better align with its human rights obligations.
The CEDAW Committee report recommendations will be the newest set of recommendations to be added to the compendium of report recommendations on the subject amassed by the Legal Strategies Coalition. The Coalition’s study, recently released in late February, found that only a few of the over 700 recommendations on improving State response to violence against Aboriginal women in Canada have been implemented by Canadian governments. The Coalition reviewed fifty eight reports, studies and inquiries and found that there is a consensus among reports on the systemic nature of the root causes of violence and a need for a national inquiry—something the CEDAW Committee report unequivocally reaffirms.
The release of the Legal Strategies Coalition report, on 26 February 2015, was followed by the national roundtable on missing and murdered Aboriginal women on, 27 February 2015. The roundtable was framed as a “beginning” – a way to start dialogue between provincial, territorial, and federal ministers, and with representatives from affected Aboriginal families. The outcome led to no substantive change on the federal government’s position vis-à-vis an inquiry—a position that unsurprisingly mirrors Canada’s response to the CEDAW Committee report.
The federal government is set to roll out its Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes Against Aboriginal Women and Girls on 1 Apr 2015. Of concern, however, is how federal leadership continues to frame the issue and response initiatives. Amnesty International Canada has characterized Federal Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch’s framing of aspects of the issue, such as the perpetrators of violence, as “incorrect and dangerous.” The Action Plan—something that bears no evidence of being comprehensive and national in scope, but instead a plan that maintains a “piecemeal and fragmentary” status quo—does not heed the recent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Legal Strategies Coalition and CEDAW Committee report recommendations for a comprehensive national inquiry and/or a national action plan.
Advocates maintain that the February 2015 roundtable, Action Plan, and decision to hold another roundtable before the end of 2016, do not lessen the need for an inquiry. There is no question that Canadian governments are taking action, Ontario serving as an example; however, in light of the current findings by the CEDAW Committee, there is legitimate cause to question the adequacy of regional responses, rather than a comprehensive, national inquiry and/or action plan. The federal government remains opposed to such national action—a stance in perpetual opposition to the provinces, territories, key Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal civil society stakeholders, and international and regional human rights expert bodies.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Report of the inquiry concerning anada of the Committee of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/1, 6 March 2015, at para 211, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/CAN/CEDAW_C_OP-8_CAN_1_7643_E.pdf>.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Observations of the Government of Canada on the report of the inquiry concerning Canada of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/2, 6 March 2015, at para 122, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/CAN/CEDAW_C_OP-8_CAN_2_7644_E.pdf>.
 Ibid at para 6.
Lara Koerner Yeo is a first year student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. She was a research assistant in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch and worked on the report, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” She currently works with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.